Poverty and the War of Statistics

We’ve talked about skewed attitudes toward the poor and the working-class, and we’ve attempted to identify some of what we carry around with us that makes us vulnerable to accepting those attitudes without much reflection. But there’s an aspect of this we haven’t talked about yet: the all-out effort by radical conservatives to promote, justify, and disseminate bogus proof that those skewed attitudes are accurate. In my commentary on class warfare, I said:

Those of us at the bottom of the income scale are involved in a war. It is not a war of bullets, mortar shells, bombs and tanks, but it is a war just the same, and people are dying. We didn’t start this war. It is not a war with us but a war on us. We didn’t ask for it, we don’t want it, and if we could we’d sue for peace. It is not a war we can win in any final way, ever. We are outgunned, overmatched, and trapped in a swamp. The enemy controls our food, our shelter, our health, and our livelihoods. He rarely shows pity, breaks every truce within hours, and chips away at us every day as if we were emotionless blocks of ice he is hoping to whittle down until we just melt away.

This is part of what I was talking about:

In January, a conservative think-tank called The Heritage Foundation published what purported to be a statistical study of poverty. Titled ‘Understanding Poverty’ and authored by by Robert E. Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, it contains this paragraph:

In good economic times or bad, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work during a year: That amounts to 16 hours of work per week. If work in each family were raised to 2,000 hours per year–the equivalent of one adult working 40 hours per week throughout the year–nearly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty.

This is the standard right-wing answer to the poverty problem: The poor should work more. There are several difficulties with this simplistic conclusion.

First, a large majority of those on welfare are single mothers with young children who have little or no access to child care; there was never much but what little there was has been cut by the Bush Administration to almost nothing. You could say ‘eliminated’ and you’d be close to right. It’s more than likely that those mothers would only be able to work a small number of hours because they’ve got nobody to watch the kids when they’re at work.

Second, many of the employers in industries that traditionally hire at low-income wages (restaurants, department and grocery stores, gas stations and convenience stores, nursing homes, hospitals, pre-schools, and so on), encouraged by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chow, have been systematically cutting the hours of their employees in order to avoid having to pay more than the minimum wage or provide any benefits whatever–Wal-Mart is the leader in this movement, and its dubious if not illegal practices have been copied by a lot of corporations in the service industries. What they have done, in effect, is make their full-time workers part-time. In order to avoid having to hire more part-time workers to cover the work short-fall, they have ordered–ordered–those part-time workers to work one day a week for free under threat of being fired for ‘violating company policies’ if they refuse (questioned by a union magazine, Chow refused to comment on this practice, not even to acknowledge that it was happening). Rector and Johnson ignore this reality in their report, pretending that it doesn’t exist.

But the worst problem of all is that the conclusion is based on false data–the numbers they’re using aren’t real. Sharp-eyed Phaedrus at the blog No Fear of Freedom, a self-described ‘genuine member of the lumpen proletariat’, smelled a rat and did some investigating. He found a report based on census data by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities titled ‘Poverty increases and median income declines for second consecutive year’ which contained this paragraph:

Nearly two-thirds of all poor families with children included a worker in 2002. These individuals typically work a significant amount. In 2001 (data for 2002 are not yet available), workers in poor families with children worked an average of 44 weeks per year, and an average of 41 hours during the weeks in which they were employed. (The average exceeded 40 hours a week because some poor families have more than one worker.)

Phaedrus replied:

You can do the math yerself if ya wanna, but it works out to around 1200 hours worked per poor family with children.[His math is wrong; at 44hr/wk, it’s 2200hrs/yr, not 1200.–MA] I don’t know how the Heritage Con Artists massaged the data (But I do know they massage data.), but it sure looks ta me like they’s lyin. Remember, too, that in many cases they’s a good reason why nobody’s workin’ in that other 1/3 of families. Disability, off tha top a my head, but they’s probly other good reasons. An’ I got severe doubts ’bout that 75% a children bein’ lifted outta poverty. Full time work at the US minimum wage only brings in about $11,000 a year, which is way b’low that poverty line for a fambly wit’ kids.

Indeed. The Heritage Foundation’s research is the cornerstone of the radical conservatives’ faith-based science, the same approach which the Bush Administration has made such an important part of its strategy: Assert your belief and then twist the evidence until it supports that belief. If twisting the data isn’t good enough, invent it. Conservative ideology says poor people are poor because they’re lazy, so HF set about proving that it was true. When the real numbers didn’t support their cherished belief, they ‘massaged’ the numbers that could be massaged and invented numbers when they couldn’t. They then disseminated this false information to conservative newspapers, tv networks, pundits, talk-show hosts, and commentators who dutifully repeated it over and over again: ‘Poor people are lazy, and here are the numbers that prove it.’ Convincing–as long as you don’t know they made it all up.

The bogus data is then cited as a reason for cutting services to low-income families. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as my mother used to say–you create a situation that you then use to manipulate someone who had nothing to do with it, like a kid who says he’ll scream if you don’t buy him the toy he wants and when you don’t, he screams, ‘I told you this would happen! It’s all your fault!’ In this case, they create false data that claims we don’t work enough, then cut our services using the excuse, ‘We don’t need to help them, it’s their own fault because they won’t work.’

This perpetual-feeding machine has worked incredibly well thanks to a compliant media and a mass of right-wing shills (progressive bloggers call them ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer’) ready to spread the manure as far as the eye can see. If you control the attitudes people have by manipulating them with false information that leads to false conclusions, then you control what those people believe and what they decide to do about it.

This is one of the ways the war is being fought and why we’re so out-gunned: we don’t control a whole lot of media outfits and the people who do aren’t on our side. They can get their fantasies taken as fact, and there’s no one on our side with the muscle to correct them.

FTT is a small attempt to do just that. Stay with us–there’s more to come.

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